This was, of course, the nub of it. The anxiety in Aspen was about money. You didn't need to be a comic genius to realize that if all entertainment was available all the time, that if you could "stream video on an à la carte basis," the entertainment world would be forever transformed.
There were many bewildered agents talking about their clients being offered option packages. "While there's no cash in the deal, there's a potentially big, big upside," said an agent trying to believe. Old-media hustlers were, appropriately, being out-hustled by new-media hustlers.
The panel that I was here to speak on was called "The Networks & the Net" and was moderated by Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry. It replaced last year's panel, which featured just network bigwigs. This year the only television heavies were Stu Bloomberg, the co-chairman of ABC Entertainment; James L. Brooks, the legendary sitcom creator; and Larry Divney of Comedy Central. Jamie Kellner of the WB and Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS Television, were last-minute dropouts (afraid of being lambasted by the new-media people, the scuttlebutt said).
On the new-media side, there was Leo Hindery, late the head of AT&T's cable and Internet business, now an Internet entrepreneur (proclaiming the future to be "niche-y, replayable content"); David Neuman, of DEN.Net, an Internet video company focused on Generation Y ("If you're inauthentic when it comes to Generation Y, you're dead"), which just withdrew its IPO because of its founder's involvement in a sex scandal; The Blair Witch Project's co-writers and co-directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, who were largely nonverbal; Jim Banister, who runs Warner's infelicitously named Entertaindom.com, which produces interactive entertainment ("a cultural, sociological happening"); and then representatives from two of the festival's new- media sponsors, Margaret Heffernan, the COO of iCAST, a multimedia production company, and Joe Kraus, the twentysomething founder of Excite ("Information is not a product; it's a service").
Kraus, who would later pronounce the discussion a great disappointment, was the only honest-to-God pure Internet guy on the panel, untainted by any old-media involvement. His youth, together with his absolute certainty about the scientific marketing capabilities of new media, together with the fact that the Excite brand and banners decorated every inch of the festival (an Excite executive in Excite-logoed polar fleece presented some of the awards), gave him the air of a conqueror. In that role, he was clearly impatient with the hand-wringing tone of the panel, with the lack of fluency with Internet lingo, and with any doubts that the world might not be changing altogether for the better.
(My contribution to the panel was to argue that Time Warner would inevitably screw up AOL, just as I noticed Gerry Levin sitting studiously in the audience.)
I wonder if Kraus, who works in an industry where the average age is probably about 25, was struck (I was) and perhaps even dismayed by the realization that the entertainment business, and especially the comedy side of entertainment, is quite an older person's business -- alter kocker heaven, practically.
After the Smothers brothers tribute, the bigwigs ("special friends") were bused over to Merv Adelson's Lazy-A Ranch, an out-of-scale home with a hotel-lobby-size living room (with Western-theme décor). Adelson, the 70-year-old founder of Lorimar and member of the Time Warner board (speculation is that he will lose his board position after the merger) and, more recently, through his venture capital company, a significant Internet investor, bounced his young daughter on his knee and entertained guests with an as-though-just-yesterday account of the intricacies of how he had arranged the syndication of Laugh-In.
From the Adelson dinner, the bus took all the special friends over to the Nichols-and-May tribute. Each of the festival's tributes was a kind of mini Academy Awards, with a rigid Hollywood seating plan. First the seats with names on them, then the block of seats marked off for HBO guests, then the more anonymous but still exclusive green-tagged seats, then (egad) the open seating.
The Nichols-and-May tribute, which consisted of Steve Martin interviewing the former comedy partners, was the funniest hour-and-some I have ever spent in a theater (not everyone agreed: "I'm a Smothers brothers sort of guy," Simpsons creator Matt Groening leaned over and said; "Nichols and May were for the cool kids"). For a moment, I even thought that Nichols and May might not be such an extreme disjunction with all the talk of new media. Nichols described what it was like to perform in the late fifties in Chicago, a town, he said, that had no hype, no notion of what was hot or not, no sense of fashion. People just came to the performance, enjoyed it or didn't, and went home. That quality, that lack of attention, that hitlessness, in fact, describes a lot of the Web.
Robin Williams, too, I thought, hilarious on the stage in Aspen, might benefit from the limits and cheapness and unmass quality of the Web. I'm pretty sure in a new-media world he'd have avoided making Patch Adams.
But that, of course, is the difficult point. The rub. The dissonance. The cultural revolution, this dismantling of the entertainment power structure -- the perks, the royalness, the big budgets, even, maybe, the moronicness, of a highly regulated, monopolistic industry -- is a terrifying thing.
"What do you think of the personalization of the Internet?" a young woman from the open-seating area asked poor Jerry Lewis (shortly before he attacked all womankind) in the Q&A period that followed his long and rambling interview with Martin Short.
Lewis, who seemed, for a second, lost, all of a sudden focused and angrily shouted, "Needless!"
And then, with the audience holding its breath, barked: "The Internet is a joke!"
A beat. Another. Then another.